Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Get Jazzed with this Bolden Book

Coming through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje

The name Buddy Bolden probably means absolutely nothing to most readers. That is, unless you're a Jazz enthusiast and/or a music historian. In which case, you'll probably know that Bolden was a coronet player in New Orleans at the turn of the previous century. You'll also know that he was a bit of a legend - not only for his coronet playing, but also because at the age of 31, he went crazy. But not before his music had found its place the annals of Jazz history. Just enough about Buddy Bolden survived to inspire Michael Ondaatje (author of "The English Patient") to write the book, "Coming through Slaughter".

So, who was Buddy Bolden? The information available about this unusual man is sparse, at best. Most of what you'll find is a mixture of contradictions, rumors and conjecture along with the apparent facts and a lone surviving picture. According to this book (and several sites on the Internet), aside from being a Jazz coronet player, he might also have been a barber. He lived with one woman - Nora - as his wife. Later he disappeared to be with another woman - whom he also loved, despite her being married to someone else. It's also possible that he was an alcoholic, and that may have played some part in his eventual insanity and death. Or perhaps, it was the taunts of Nora's ex-pimp that pushed Buddy over the edge, and caused him to cut the pimp's "pretty" face before he ran off to his other lover. Then again, it could have been the animal-wild Jazz music he played that toll it's on his mental stability while engulfing and enrapturing his audiences.

Bolden was committed, and died a premature death but there is a song that survives today that still bears his name ("Buddy Bolden's Blues", also known as "Funky Butt") seem to be the only things about Buddy Bolden that everyone can agree on. The mystery and myths behind this man's life easily stirs one's imagination. And who better than novelist/poet Michael Ondaatje to take these scant, but varied elements and write a truly inspiring book that mingles the few facts into a melodic collection of fiction.

As for the book itself, if you've read anything by Ondaatje, you'll know that he uses a very special style, mixing different types of writing to try to get inside the head of the character. In "Coming through Slaughter" (CTS), Ondaatje once again uses a unique story telling method by giving us bits of conversations, recollections, letters, documents, poems and stories into a puzzle-like collection. With this, the reader pieces it all together in order to get a full picture of who this relatively unknown character was, and in doing so gives flesh to someone with a skeletal history. Moreover, Ondaatje achieves this in a slim volume (only 159 pages), which is of constant amazement.

This is especially true when there are pages here which are practically empty. But it is the poetry and imagery that Ondaatje is famous for, which give us the feeling that there is more in this book than meets the eye. For instance, one page holds only the line "Passing wet chicory that lies in the field like the sky". This line appears again later in the book as part of a poem called 'Train Song'. In fact, this group of words is practically the whole poem itself - mixed and chopped and re-arranged to give the reader a 'clickity-clack' quality that one would associate with a train.

Part of this book follows what seems to be an investigation into Bolden's disappearance by an acquaintance of Bolden - a policeman by the name of Webb. Through Webb's tracking of Bolden, we get more insights into the world that Bolden lived in, as well as the people and places. In other parts of this book, we can almost hear Bolden's voice, and listen to the inner workings of his brain. Often, Ondaatje builds these pieces with such a steady flow that he disregards convention and does without punctuation. While this might disturb some purists, the effect is one of smoothness and fluidity that the insertion of a comma or quotation mark would have disrupted.

Of course, this means that we, the readers, cannot lay back and be spoon-fed the contents of this book. We feel what Bolden might have felt; we experience and touch and hear a world that existed over a century ago. Ondaatje achieves this, not through volumes of description and details, but by building this atmosphere, with layer upon layer of poetic language and evocative phrases. All this, in short paragraphs and chapters and conversations that mimic the rhythm and beat of the music that Bolden was famous for playing.

By the way, regarding the title of this book, we know 'slaughter' is a brutal killing of a living thing. However, Slaughter is also the name of a town located between New Orleans and the East Louisiana State Hospital where Bolden was a patient from the time of his mental illness until he died. When he was committed, they brought him from New Orleans, "through Slaughter" to the hospital. When he died, they had to bring his body back "through Slaughter" to the cemetery. So, the title of this book is a metaphor for Bolden's life and music. His music, also fed the Jazz movement in its earliest stages. His insanity and death was his sacrifice to his art.

It is almost impossible to review this book. It isn't something that is describable in words but rather something to experience. This book is Jazz and Blues; it is a literary performance that will stir you to your very bones; it is poetry and emotion and the essence of a man that otherwise would never have come to your attention. This book is - to say the very least - extremely highly recommended and deserves a full five out of five stars. 

"Coming Through Slaughter" by Michael Ondaatje is available
from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. A version of this review originally appeared on the website Dooyoo under my username "TheChocolateLady" as well as {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

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